Seven new shorts by New Zealand filmmakers.
A fine start to the “Quirky Stories” Homegrown programme, director Jack Woon tells a succinct ‘outsider overcomes cultural barriers’ story with a surreal twist. Set at some sort of high school rock quest, our young classical pianist protagonist has clearly missed the target demographic but, after some strange and intense proceedings, parts the sea of derision surrounding his performance. Conceptually Empty Swan Song makes for a strong, if straightforward, narrative piece. The effects employed by Woon in the climactic build-up sequence are nicely conceived and executed, setting up a good climactic payoff. To my mind leaving the final scene in complete silence would’ve delivered a stronger ending, giving the audience space to fill in the auditory gap with our own imaginings while creating a contrast with the sound-filled beginning. Still, Empty Swan Song doesn’t suffer with its ending as is, wrapping a tight, complete idea.
The first of several animated shorts in this programme Mardo El-Noor’s Rock Paper Scissors dresses a philosophical exploration of the significant factors behind human behaviour and international relations as a discussion between the three objects from the titular game. Each of the three objects represents one of three perspectives, broken down here into the broad headers nature, nurture, and conspiracy. Simultaneously surreal and cartoonish, visually the short reminds of Picasso and is quite pleasant to watch. However, the feature stands primarily upon its philosophical narrative and this comes across as a little soft—something like a ‘Philosophy 107: Philosophy-lite for filmmakers’ course. In this respect it could learn something from Richard Linklater’s cleverly constructed and smartly written philosophical animation masterpiece Waking Life. Despite this weakness, Rock Paper Scissors successfully brings its concept full circle with a useful dash of humour thrown in for good measure.
Not so much the story of Robert Falcon Scott’s Antarctic expedition told from a banana’s perspective, as a heart-wrenching stop motion melodrama involving tragic/forbidden (cross genus) love set against the backdrop of Scott’s final journey. Jodie Stack’s Fruitless Journey recalls one of those odd ideas that springs from a hazy, late night hang out with a few intimate (and perhaps mildly drunk) friends, of which no one quite remembers the exact origins – the difference with this being that it made its way into a film! Fun, quirky, and dark, though a little lacking in dramatic substance.
A superbly animated exploration of neural journeying, Tentacles of Dimension is definitely a work of abstract art. Just don’t expect narrative structure in Nandita Kumar’s short! The visuals are rich and do have a noticeable thematic flow, but I might have preferred it to round off at around the 10 minute mark. Still, Tentacles of Dimension is a great alternative use of a medium generally consigned to more populist genre concerns, and the screen visuals create a great contemplative space for the viewer.
Back to live action, Daniel Story’s The Witch & the Woodsman takes standard morality tale tropes (the innocent girl, the evil witch, the woodsman saviour), and fashions a new original short from them. Woodsman lead Rene Naufahu’s pre-screening comment that it was a refreshing change to have a thematically dark and unusual role for a Polynesian actor was aptly spoken; this being one of the factors that gives this fable vibrancy and unique local flavour. Visually the short makes good use of the natural greens and browns of the New Zealand bush setting, although occasionally the obvious image layering is distracting. While probably the most conventional of all the Homegrown shorts, The Witch & the Woodsman nonetheless offers an engaging narrative drama.
Pervaded by an existential longing for connection, Steven Chow’s Tide matches an excellent voiceover narration (top marks to the girl in question) with a single immersive shot traversing Auckland Harbour for the entirety of the 10-minute short. The narrator speaks a young woman’s feelings about home in light of time spent away on an isolated island and a lost, faraway love that haunts her waking hours. The camera speaks wistful contemplation as we watch the slowly fading cityscape foregrounded by rhythmically churning waters. Those with a bent for slow, contemplative cinema will enjoy the visual element (and maybe recognise nods to such filmmakers as Chantel Akerman and Bela Tarr) whilst the narrative prose—delivered with a rhythm of its own—helps define an emotional structure through which to interpret (and enjoy) the visuals. Although the visual and aural elements would each work independent of the other, together they combine to make a beautiful complementary piece of contrasts and contemplations. For instance, the narrator begins by remembering regular early morning ferry journeys, whereas the camera captures a single trip that you quickly realise is happening at sunset as opposed to sunrise. While the narrative is full of wide-ranging emotional expression, the framing is steady and stable; the rhythm of the water even and calming.
Retelling the biographical story of Vietnamese refugee Mitchell Pham (with both an actor playing him as a child and Mitchell himself being interviewed as an adult), director/producer Sally Tran successfully mashes documentary style interview, dramatic recreation of events, and stop-frame animation (utilising a form of origami) to construct this film. This latter technique—resulting in a kitschy arts and crafts aesthetic—is very well employed, adding a layer of originality and giving the short a very distinctive visual style. Inventive, funny, and hiding an emotional depth behind its quirky façade, Eat Your Cake; I’m a Vietnamese Refugee’s clever assemblage intensifies the inherent interest of the subject matter. With apparent little formal training as a filmmaker, Tran shows what can be accomplished with a good story and a strong creative point of view.
Belle Barber and Linden Kirkby’s ultra-short Nell the Narcoleptic is really a brief showcasing of a character the animators look to be planning bigger things for. And fair enough—they’ve done a pretty decent job at turning the concept into reality. The animation style reminds (broadly) of Pixar’s recent Up. This little episode takes a conventional line, action-wise, for an animated sequence (considering the character suffers from narcolepsy), but works well to highlight the creators’ fine CGI skills. (Viewing a final exhibition of media students working on CGI a few years back, I saw first-hand how hard and time-consuming this stuff is to do really well!) All they need now is a decent story to insert the titular character into for us to see where they can take it.
The only true documentary short in this line-up comes care of the (recently) prolific Fulbright scholar Briar March who has two other pieces scattered around this New Zealand International Film Festival programme (including the moving documentary feature There Once Was An Island). Michael and His Dragon is an intense piece about the impacts of war on individuals and how perspectives change once you’ve been on the other side of the fence. Eponymous subject Michael opens up to March’s camera in an emotionally and informationally revealing way: contrasting his idealised dreams and expectations prior to entering the Marine Corps, versus his crisis of faith and ongoing battle with post-traumatic stress disorder subsequent to active military service in Iraq. As with her other work, this short is beautifully shot (on black and white 16mm) and thoughtfully constructed; the director allowing the subject to set the thematic tone rather than boxing his story into a preconceived point of view. As a narrative tool March utilises Michael’s various tattoos, which are jumping off points for the experiences he shares and also the origin of the titular dragon. Visually and thematically compelling, this is a great note on which to end the “Quirky Stories” Homegrown programme for 2010.